A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
My ex-boyfriend had a very strange mental block. Every time he read about a female character in a book, he imagined her as young, thin and white. Even when she was actually described as old, or Asian, or overweight – even when the author told him what to see – he stubbornly carried on imagining an 18 year old Aryan darling. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually only an extreme version of the automatic assumptions that most readers hold. We still assume that our heroes will be white, and heterosexual, and able, because we’ve been taught by hundreds and hundreds of books that that’s what heroes look like. Any deviation from the norm has to be very firmly signalled, and even then many readers won’t pick it up.
But it’s difficult to entirely blame them. I was born relatively recently, in the late 80s, and I can still count on one hand the number of ethnically and sexually diverse characters I encountered as main characters in the books I read as a child. I remember being amazed to realise that Ged from the Earthsea books was black, and when I came across Sephy in Noughts and Crosses she seemed completely unique. A few years later, when I read Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, it still took me until about a quarter of the way through to realise that every single character in it was black or mixed-race, apart from the people specifically described as white. I’m not even going to talk about LGBT characters, because as far as I can remember there weren’t any – not until I picked up Fingersmith aged 13 and pretty much blew my own mind.
Those experiences, few as they were, were incredibly important to me. They taught me how much more interesting books could be if the characters didn’t all look and act in exactly the same way. I loved fantasy and historical fiction as a child because it was so unlike my own life – but what I realised is that you don’t have to go to Narnia to be taken out of yourself. That’s why I believe so strongly now that diversity in children’s fiction is crucial. What you experience when you are a child, after all, will affect your thinking for the rest of your life.
I do think that this is something that is being understood more and more by the publishing industry. Even in my (comparatively) short career as a reader of children’s books, there have been visible changes. The rise of LGBT characters in YA and even children’s fiction in the last fifteen years is astonishing and wonderful. These days, gay characters don’t just get to exist, they’re allowed to be people, with plots that aren’t just about sex. It’s also a distinct oddity to see a children’s book published in 2014 with no non-white characters. Just like gay characters, they are now expected to be there, and be people, and that’s great.
But it’s important not to be satisfied with diverse characters as part of the supporting cast. One of the most powerful things about fiction is the way that it allows you to connect with a book’s narrator. When you read a book, you get to leave the you that is yourself and become someone else, and while it’s important to read about people who aren’t like you, being someone who isn’t like you is a much more powerful experience.
In the past few months I’ve been (among many others) a 17-year-old epileptic boy (The Universe versus Alex Woods), a little Cockney girl from the 1950s (Long Lankin), a man in his 40s who can dream new worlds (The Lathe of Heaven) and a 7-year-old Ghanaian boy living on a London council estate (Pigeon English). I am nothing like these people. I will never live the lives they have. But, through the magic of the written world, I have seen the world the way they see it. Whether or not their story is told in the third or first person, I know the I of them – and I know that they are just as human as I am.
As it happens, my own book, Murder Most Unladylike, has two main characters. One, Daisy, is a white British girl, and the other, my narrator Hazel, is a Chinese girl from Hong Kong. Even though I might look like Daisy, it’s Hazel that I find much easier to understand. Like I was when I was an American girl at a British school, she’s different in a way that can’t be hidden. She can’t ever get it right, and every time she thinks she understands what’s going on the British people around her do something else completely unexpected. And that’s the power of fiction. You can show what connects you to other people, rather than what separates you from them.
I wrote about Hazel for a variety of reasons, most of them quite obvious and boring (a lot of my school friends were from Hong Kong, so when I decided to write a school story it seemed really weird not to have a Chinese character), but I don’t know if I would have done it if I hadn’t already seen that it was possible to create a heroine who wasn’t white. We need diverse characters in children’s fiction, right in the middle of things, to show the next generation of writers that everyone’s story is equally worth telling. And we’re beginning (only beginning, but it’s still a start) to work towards this. R. J. Palacio’s August, Rainbow Rowell’s Park, Zoe Mariott’s Mio, David Levithan’s A and many others – when we read their stories it’s their voices we hear, and that’s what we can never have enough of.
Books should help you feel like yu’re not alone – whoever you are. If you’re not white, or not straight, you’re probably pretty used to reading about people who are other than you. But if you are in that traditional hero and heroine bracket – and you’ll know if you are – then you deserve the chance to be taken out of yourself in the same way.
Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She has been making up stories all her life. When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up. When it occurred to her that she was never going to be able to grow her own spectacular walrus moustache, she decided that Agatha Christie was the more achieveable option.
She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She then went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and now she works at a children’s publisher, which is pretty much the best day job she can imagine. Robin now lives near London with her boyfriend and her pet bearded dragon, Watson. Her first novel, MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE, will be published by Random House Children’s Publishing in May 2014.